Brian Evenson’s Writing Is as Brutal as It Is Beautiful
Evenson's universe of psycho-cerebral horror is so unsettling that it has the ability to make something about the room in which you read him seem off.
For my money, Brian Evenson is one of the most consistently vital and unnerving voices in writing today. Spanning 11 full-length novels, as well as works attributed to various pseudonyms and works in translation, Evenson's universe of psycho-cerebral horror maintains a consistently sating and reawakening pulse. There are no limits to reality when in the hands of Evenson's language, which speaks as calmly and clearly as a friend, while at the same time making something about the room in which you read him seem altered, off.
Now's a great time to be a Brian Evenson fan, new or longstanding, as Coffee House Press has just released a four-book set of new editions of his work. The set includes three rereleases of out-of-print titles—his novels Father of Lies (1998), The Open Curtain (2006), and Last Days (2009)—as well as his latest collection of short fictions, A Collapse of Horses , which finds the author still at the height of his powers.
1. Father of Lies is a novel written shortly after Evenson's well-documented self-excommunication from the Mormon Church early on in his career. He left the faith following accusations by the administration at BYU that his work was not fit for its religion, specifically the primal scenes of violence, incest, and cannibalism depicted in his first novel, Altmann's Tongue (1994). Not only did Evenson refuse to be kowtowed by someone else's interpretation of moral standards, he did not take the admonishment lying down. In Father of Lies, Evenson depicts a Mormon provost, Eldon Fochs, who regularly molests the teen females in his stead. As Fochs attempts to pursue the matter more deeply, the Mormon Church attempts to intervene, rearing an unnerving and emotionally terrifying orchestration of deceit, ritual abuse, and ambient religious mania. Father of Lies stands out among Evenson's work as the most institutionally critical, morally unsettling of the books in this collection.
2. The Open Curtain might be the author's most well known work, one I've read more than five times. The novel leads us through the increasingly surreal experience of a young man, Rudd, who becomes obsessed with his research of a murder committed by the grandson of former LDS president Brigham Young. The discovery comes in the midst of Rudd's parallel uncovering of the existence of a half-brother, with whom his relationship seems to blossom alongside their mutual fascination with the crime. Trying to describe the transitioning effects of how Evenson details the acid-like reconfiguring of Rudd's person in the presence of this brother, who may or may not actually exist, we begin to think, is nearly impossible. There's a touch of the time-shifting of Lost Highway in here, and the colors of Suspiria, and the soundtrack of Burzum's Hvis Lyset Tar Oss , and a whole other strange register which throughout it all just seems like a calm story dictated to you by a stranger in your sleep.
3. Having read an early excerpt of Last Days in the form of a short run glossy pamphlet titled The Brotherhood of Mutilation years ago, I remember feeling, in the digestion of that fragment, as if I'd stumbled through a door in my home I hadn't noticed was always there, leading to another version of the world that seemed like ours but also wasn't. A secret place, cryptic like a snuff film, but on paper, made of language. And yet, the full novel version of Last Days is all about truncation—it follows the experience of an ex-detective named Kline, who is abducted into a cult-like society that believes amputation brings people closer to God. Once taken, he is forced to help them investigate who murdered their leader. The clinical tone with which Evenson is able to traverse such situations, and the strange stark architecture of their world, makes even the most insidious or repulsive situations seem plausible, mathematical, nearby. Nothing is real, so everything is real.
4. A Collapse of Horses continues the series of Evenson's masterful short fiction collections, perhaps now breaking into the widest breadth of all his modes. While his earliest works often begat violence and sickness, more and more his work grows attended instead to the feel of space around the acts themselves, invoking deeper and deeper levels of the subconscious, the associative. Evenson's narrators recite various threads of reality, relentlessly questioning themselves: Am I remembering what I am saying happened to me correctly? Could I be getting something wrong? What is it about myself that I don't know?
This endlessly looping sense of perspective fills each story, and each page within each story, undoing itself as it continues. Just when it feels that you are beginning to parse the logic underneath the narrator's reality, something about that perspective seems to divert. Your own thoughts might be as much an enemy to you in figuring out where or who you are as the suspicion that something is wrong. And the nearer the bearer of the wrong feeling is allowed, the less the person in its midst can seem to recognize it.
One of the things I most love about Evenson's short fiction, and what makes it bigger than a book, is how it seems to work not as a body full of organs that come together by the association of being placed side by side, but instead the thriving feeling riding from one over into the other. The same terror that appears in a story about a man having surgery to remove "the tumor that had spread its fingers across his jaw and up one side of the neck" appears again wholly mutated a hundred pages later in the story of a woman who loses her ability to sleep after her husband, with whom she shares the bed, loses his arm. There is something there, and there is nothing there, and so it is the calm, almost mesmeric language with which Evenson fills in the space between the lines that lingers and folds over and changes intention and spreads and spreads.
No matter where you start with Evenson's work, the door is wide ajar, and once you go through it you won't be coming out.
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